Middle East update: February 15 2019

SYRIA

The Syrian Democratic Forces militia has paused its offensive in Baghouz again out of concerns for civilian casualties. The SDF had opened up a corridor for people to flee ISIS’s final Syrian enclave last week and seemed to be ready to resume operations in full after thousands of people took advantage of the corridor and got the hell out of there. But ISIS is apparently parading around hundreds more civilians who had been hiding underneath the town to escape the fighting.

The SDF’s concern for civilian casualties is laudable but I’m not sure we can say it’s entirely genuine. The 1500-2000 (or more) civilians killed in Raqqa back in 2017 suggest that this policy is relatively new. And it may well have to do with the US plan to pull its forces out of eastern Syria, potentially leaving the SDF at the mercy of the Turkish military. The US seems to be planning its draw down to coincide with the end of this anti-ISIS offensive, so from the SDF’s perspective there’s no rush. Turkey’s plans to attack the SDF were seemingly quashed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on Thursday, and yet the Turks came right back Friday, talking about their plans to impose a “safe zone” (safe for everybody except the Kurds) in northeastern Syria that would be manned entirely by Turkish soldiers.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is casting around for ideas how to prevent the SDF from getting wiped out once the US does leave. Central Command boss Joseph Votel is suggesting that the US continue arming and assisting the SDF after quitting Syria, which is unlikely to make much difference and would potentially draw the US into a conflict with Turkey, a NATO ally. Lindsey Graham, US Senator and manservant to Donald Trump, told the Munich Security Conference on Friday that European countries should send soldiers to eastern Syria to replace US forces. Basically the idea is to ask European leaders who disagree with Trump’s decision to withdraw to undermine that decision by putting their own forces at risk and shouldering the cost themselves, and oh by the way maybe getting themselves in a confrontation with Ankara. It’s unlikely to gain much support.

Also at the conference, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan assured everybody that the US isn’t quitting the Forever War on Terror by pulling out of Syria, just shuffling its cards a bit. Shanahan called for “an even bigger and stronger” anti-ISIS coalition, which for the Trump administration means “we’d like to keep doing what we’re doing but have other countries pay us more for doing it.” If the Forever War on Terror is to continue, and it must since it’s a forever war, then I don’t know about the coalition needing to get bigger but it will definitely have to change, as ISIS’s territorial ambitions shift away from the Middle East and toward sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, and as its overall ambitions shift away from territorial conquest in general and toward asymmetric warfare (i.e., actual terrorism).

YEMEN

How well did the Trump administration’s Iran Sucks 2019 conference in Warsaw go? So well that Yemeni Foreign Minister Khaled al-Yamani was forced on Friday to say that he wound up sitting next to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the event due to a “protocol error.” Yamani was caught on video yakking it up with Netanyahu, and presumably he’s worried about how that will play back home.

TURKEY

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would like the United States to be a little harder on the Saudis over the Jamal Khashoggi murder:

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday scolded the Trump administration for not confronting Saudi Arabia over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. He said that his government was in possession of additional “documents” related to the case it had not shared.

“The CIA has yet to put all their weight on this issue. America needs to put their presence and their weight on this issue,” he said while talking about the United States’ bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Erdoğan of course knows this isn’t going to happen, but the Khashoggi case is an easy way for him to needle the US and the Saudis while pretending as though he actually values freedom of the press. He also was by all accounts friendly with Khashoggi, so there’s some personal animus involved here too.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

There are two schools of thought about how the Warsaw conference went for Netanyahu. On the one hand, he and his team made what appear at least at first glance to have been some pretty amateur gaffes:

A two-day security conference in Warsaw was supposed to be a crowning achievement for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, stamping a seal on his long-held goal of pushing his behind-the-scenes ties with Arab leaders into the open. Instead, the publicity-seeking Israeli leader made one embarrassing misstep after another, distracting attention from his main mission and sending his aides into a nonstop cycle of damage control.

Political opponents at home hammered a string of Netanyahu’s comments on the diplomatic journey, accusing him of politicizing the military for electoral purposes, leaking a sensitive video that embarrassed Arab Gulf states and apologizing to Poland for another dustup over its role in the Holocaust. Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s spokespeople were sent scrambling to clarify he didn’t mean to encourage war with Iran and that a low-level assistant had accidentally shared the sensitive video.

On the other hand, the content of those alleged gaffes all just so happened to portray Netanyahu as a major world leader, improving Israeli ties with European and Arab states alike while forcefully pushing his anti-Iran agenda on a global stage. I’m not so sure those “gaffes” will play badly for Netanyahu at home, which is all he really cares about with the election fast approaching.

Speaking of the election, +972 Magazine’s Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the state of the Israeli political left–spoiler, it’s not pretty:

There is one thing shared by nearly every Israeli who does not define her or himself as right-wing: a profound desire to oust Benjamin Netanyahu. And yet, despite all their efforts, none of the left-wing parties today look capable of doing so.

Polls show the left-wing Meretz party hovering near the four-seat minimum threshold to enter Knesset. and at least one poll had Labor down to just five seats in recent weeks. After Ahmad Tibi’s recent announcement that he would leave the Joint List and run independently, the two Arab parties reach 12-13 combined seats in most polls, the total representation of the Israeli left — notwithstanding wide variations between them — could be down to 21 seats (4, 5 and 12). Such a result would be unprecedented. These parties won 42 seats in the 2015 elections. When Labor had its lowest showing ever in 2009, the total still reached 27 seats.

Nearly 20 years after the Second Intifada precipitated the collapse of the Israeli left, it’s time to stop asking what happened. The real question is why after so many years has the left failed to resurrect itself — and whether it could do so in the future?

EGYPT

A “homemade bomb” (restaurant bomb prices are really prohibitive these days) exploded outside a mosque in Giza on Friday. Three people were hurt and so far nobody has claimed responsibility.

IRAN

For reasons beyond my ability to comprehend, the English-language Twitter account affiliated with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei chose Friday to remind everybody that the Iranian government still wants somebody to murder author Salman Rushdie over The Satanic Verses. Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa against Rushdie led to attacks not just against the author but against many others who had a hand in The Satanic Verses’ publication. In one such attack the book’s Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, was murdered. It goes without saying that what was reprehensible in 1989 remains so 30 years later.

Also on Twitter, here’s the US Secretary of State saying what used to be the quiet part very loudly:

This seems like kind of a perverse incentive for countries to build a bomb before they start talking! But also too, Pompeo’s full answer is even stranger:

We’ve made very clear that these situations are very different. We take each of them where we find them. North Korea today has weapons, nuclear weapons, capable of reaching the United States of America. This is a threat that President Trump said we needed to take on now and take on immediately. The President’s chosen to meet with Chairman Kim. I’ve now met with him several times myself. We’re very hopeful that we can push them back. Remember too, North Korea behaves very differently. They’re not destabilizing Yemen. They’re not destabilizing Syria. They’re not conducting enormous assassination campaigns. These countries’ behaviors are different, therefore, the way America is approaching resolving this.

I mean, testing nukes is kind of destabilizing! And while I’m not here to denigrate North Korea, imprisoning and then killing US students seems not great! Additionally, “enormous” is doing a lot of work there to modify “assassination campaigns,” as it elides the fact that Kim Jong-un allegedly had his own brother murdered in Malaysia with VX not that long ago.

All I’m saying is that this is way too many words to say “we’re being nice to North Korea but not Iran because Kim Jong-un decided to kiss my boss’s ass while the Iranians are still antagonizing him.”

Whatever Vice President Mike Pence hoped to achieve on Thursday in Warsaw when he scolded European countries like wayward children for their refusal to go along with trashing the Iran nuclear deal, he doesn’t seem to have achieved it. The message from the European Union and Germany in Munich on Friday was pretty clear: they’re going to continue to uphold the agreement. And so instead of finally isolating Iran, Paul Pillar writes, the Warsaw conference was yet another step by the Trump administration toward isolating itself:

The Warsaw conference leaves the world with the same old stuff regarding the campaign of maximum hostility toward Iran and the Trump administration’s lining up behind a few regional rivals of Iran even when this means lining up against the rest of the world. But despite this relative isolation and the small ball the administration is playing on this issue, it still speaks as if the United States can dictate what the rest of the world should do. This tone pervaded Vice President Mike Pence’s speech at the conference, in which his complaints about European governments not being “cooperative” with U.S. sanctions sounded like a schoolmarm scolding pupils for evading discipline. Unstated in the speech is that the United States—not the Europeans and not Iran—is in blatant violation not only of the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) but of the unanimously enacted United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, which is the international community’s endorsement of the JCPOA. Pence was calling on European governments to violate their own obligations and to show as much contempt for the Security Council as the Trump administration does.

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